Inside the Real-Life Time-Travel Experiment That Inspired 'Stranger Things'
The hype surrounding Netflix's Stranger Things is proving harder to kill than that creepy Demogorgon monster, and it's only going to grow now that Season 2 is out in the world (with Season 3 inevitably coming in 2018). The fan frenzy is a testament to the megahit's intricately layered details. While we've gone deep on many aspects of our favorite show from this summer, one element of the series' backstory bears closer examination: a real-life government experiment that inspired Stranger Things, known among paranormal buffs as the "Montauk Project."
The cultural phenomenon that we now know as Stranger Things was sold under the working title Montauk, and before producers switched the setting to a small town in Indiana, the eerie action of Season 1 was going to take place way out at the eastern end of Long Island. But the thread looped through the eight Stranger Things episodes, the idea that contact between Eleven and the Demogorgon may have opened the portal to the Upside Down, has roots in an incident that conspiracy theorists believe occurred in Montauk in 1983, and ended secret experiments that the US military had been conducting on children for four decades.
That far-fetched scenario that corresponds to Stranger Things is only part of the Long Island legend. So hold on to your Eggos -- the story of the so-called Montauk Project gets even weirder than what we've seen on the Netflix gem so far.
Exposing the "Montauk Project"
Rumors that the US government had been conducting experiments in psychological warfare in Montauk at either Camp Hero or the Montauk Air Force Station began to bubble up in the mid-1980s. Preston B. Nichols legitimized the theorizing when he detailed the supposed events in a series of books. In The Montauk Project: Experiments in Time (1982), Nichols recovered repressed memories about his stint as a subject in a mysterious experiment; soon, others involved with the Montauk Project came forward to corroborate some of Nichols' seemingly outlandish claims.
As these and other subjects recovered more of their memories, they gave numerous interviews about their involvement in experiments involving space, time, and other dimensions. Depending on the interview, and when it was documented, the scope of what was happening in Montauk is expansive enough to include many other conspiracies. As of now, the going narrative leading up to the 1983 incident begins during World War II with a much more famous covert military operation.
How the "Philadelphia Experiment" ties in
In October 1943, the US military supposedly conducted secret experiments in the naval shipyard in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on a quest to discover a way to foil Nazi radar so that they could safely transport supplies to the Allies in Europe. The Navy has never admitted to any of these tests taking place, but according to conspiracy theorists as far back as 1955, it not only succeeded in uncovering how to make its ships invisible to radar, but accidentally managed to cause a battleship to travel… well, no one's quite sure. To another time? Into a different dimension? The ship went somewhere, and after the military learned about the negative effects overexposure to their version of the Upside Down had on the crew, it shut the project down.
Hollywood got its hands on this story before Stranger Things. The 1984 movie The Philadelphia Experiment, adapted from a book about this conspiracy, follows two sailors serving on the U.S.S. Eldridge during World War II. Just like in "history," the experiment crew finds itself and the ship blinked 40 years forward in time. Once in the future, they realize that the Philadelphia Experiment has been revived in the '80s, but as a way for the government to make an ICBM shield. (Thanks, Cold War!) The two experiments connect through a time wormhole and the generators on the Eldridge keep the portal open as it begins to suck in matter from 1984. The Philadelphia Experiment underwhelmed at the box office, but for a select few, the movie triggered a new, and old, life.
A portal to Montauk
After seeing The Philadelphia Experiment in 1988, 57-year-old Al Bielek couldn't shake the eerie feeling that he'd seen it somewhere before. Undergoing various forms of New Age therapies, Bielek was able to uncover repressed memories of having worked on the Montauk Project in the 1970s and '80s; he also ascertained that his memories had been locked away to keep the experiment secret. As his memories came flooding back, he learned that his name wasn't Al Bielek, after all; born Edward Cameron, he'd also worked on the Philadelphia Experiment with his brother, Duncan Cameron, when both men were in their mid-20s.
A few years later, Al Bielek presented his story at a Mutual UFO Network conference. The Philadelphia Experiment was real, he said, and he was the proof, having lived out the World War II section of the movie. Bielek claimed that, sometime in the 1940s, Nikola Tesla figured out how to make the U.S.S. Eldridge invisible and, in the process, opened up a time wormhole into the future that sucked in the ship. The Cameron brothers were on board, jumping off the vessel and landing at Montauk's Camp Hero -- on August 12th, 1983. The military promptly sent them back through the wormhole with a mission: destroy the equipment on the Eldridge. According Bielek, the brothers completed their mission, though that didn't stop the government from doing more experiments on building portals into the future.
During a 1990 speech for the Mutual UFO Network, Bielek described in vague terms how he'd been de-aged, had his memory wiped, and had been forced to live out the rest of his life as "Al Bielek." He explained how, in the early 1960s, he (as Edward) had convinced his father to have another child so they could port Duncan's consciousness from 1983 into the sibling born in 1963. Bielek referred to this version of Duncan as a "walk-in soul." He also suggested that a 1983 accident (as detailed as he gets) caused him to begin aging rapidly.
When psychic powers became psychic espionage
Bielek's stories circulated and gained the attention of Preston Nichols, who would befriend Bielek and tell the Cameron brothers', and his own, story. In The Montauk Project: Experiments in Time, Nichols writes of his time working at Camp Hero on the secret experiments. Specifically, during the 1970s, he claimed, he'd worked with Bielek on something called the "Montauk Chair," a piece of furniture that used electromagnetics to amplify psychic powers.
Duncan Cameron -- the "walk-in soul" child version born in 1963 -- was found to have psychic powers, and became the focus of many of the Montauk Chair experiments. Apparently, Duncan could manifest objects just by thinking about them while in the Montauk Chair. One of the experiments Nichols describes sounds a lot like the experiment being performed on Eleven before she opens the portal to the Upside Down:
The first experiment was called "The Seeing Eye." With a lock of person's hair or other appropriate object in his hand, Duncan could concentrate on the person and be able to see as if he was seeing through their eyes, hearing through their ears, and feeling through their body. He could actually see through other people anywhere on the planet.
The abducted kids
Nichols continued to experiment with Duncan, who was such a powerful psychic that no one suspected that he was a man from the distant past inserted into a new body. He tried to harness his adept subject's powers in the Montauk Chair to conduct mind-control experiments using special radio dishes at Camp Hero. This is where the other children come in.
In his book, Nichols writes of other boys being brought in and experimented on; some were sent through a portal into the unknown of spacetime. Stranger Things lifts this theory; the name "Eleven" suggests there are or were likely 10 other subjects. In Nichols' book, these abductees are known as the "Montauk Boys," and since Nichols and Bielek started speaking about their regained memories, other Long Island men have rediscovered that they were frequently abducted from their homes by Camp Hero scientists who wanted to "break" them psychologically so that they could implant subconscious commands.
Not to create a crazy Stranger Things theory out of thin air, but who's to say that Hopper's daughter really died of cancer?
Duncan establishes a portal
After several years of experimenting with Duncan in the Montauk Chair, Nichols claims that they could reliably travel to other times and places (even to Mars). Eventually, they were able to program Duncan with some basic commands so that the poor kid didn't need to be confined to the chair all the time. How kind.
At one point, however, Nichols' superiors told him to turn on the Montauk Chair and leave it running... through August 12th, 1983. As the story goes, by having another time-travel machine switched on, the Montauk Project successfully created a time wormhole to 1943, with power at both ends. That's how Ed and the Duncan Cameron of 1943 came through the portal, and that events described by Al Bielek occurred.
Nichols kept the Duncan of 1943 away from the 1963 version, but quickly realized that time travel was way too complex and far too dangerous to be messing around with (torturing children, though: just fine!). He and three colleagues hatched a plan to use Duncan to shut down the project.
Duncan summons a monster
We finally decided we'd had enough of the whole experiment. The contingency program was activated by someone approaching Duncan while he was in the chair and simply whispering "The time is now." At this moment, he let loose a monster from his subconscious. And the transmitter actually portrayed a hairy monster. It was big, hairy, hungry and nasty. But it didn't appear underground in the null point. It showed up somewhere on the base. It would eat anything it could find. And it smashed everything in sight. Several different people saw it, but almost everyone described a different beast.
Nichols had to smash all of the equipment that powered the Montauk Chair before the beast disappeared back into nothingness. That incident, plus the successful time anchor that was built between August 12th, 1943 and August 12th, 1983, ensured that the project would be shuttered. Employees were then brainwashed and, in 1984, the lower levels of the base were filled in with cement.
Even stranger things
Of the many bizarre stories of what happened at Camp Hero, Stranger Things only uses three of the core elements: portals, the monster, and children with psychic powers. But looking forward to Stranger Things Season 2 (which has not yet been officially green-lit by Netflix), the ongoing rumors of government misconduct at Montauk provide many creepy options for how the story of the boys, Eleven, and Doctor Brenner works out. Some testimonials from Montauk survivors make mention of alien lifeforms, either of the classic gray-skinned variety or something weirder, like giant lizard people or extra-dimensional beings that appear in a humanoid shape made of hollow glass. The time-travel element is also in play, and connections back to the "Philadelphia Experiment," the conspiracy theory that gave rise to all the Montauk stories.
The bulk of the Montauk Project is set around the same time as Stranger Things, but true believers like Nichols and Bielek, up until he passed away in 2011, maintain that these experiments dealing with the expansion of human consciousness and future technology are still going on somewhere, somehow. In 2008, an unidentified carcass of an animal washed up on the beach of Long Island, adopting the label of the "Montauk Monster" from the early 1990s version (Cameron's creation is commonly referred to as "Junior" now). Urban explorers still venture into Camp Hero on Long Island, where some claim you can still hear screams in the abandoned tunnels. Sporadic reports that the closed base still draws military-levels of power despite being "inactive" persist, and the truth about Camp Hero and what happened there continues to be concealed beneath multiple layers of rumor, myth, and the "fiction" of Stranger Things.
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.